The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Mudbound begins with two men digging a grave, hacking through the mud in the middle of a torrential downpour. One declares that “we ain’t gonna make it.” “We have to,” insists the other. In the sodden, dirt-brown world of Dee Rees’ mid-century Southern tragedy, a stubborn insistence on survival is all that its inhabitants have. The film returns to a more conspicuously divided America, one in which the social order upheld the rage of aging men over the rights of a young soldier of color returning from war as a hero. A country where the best medication for a veteran beset by PTSD was so often found in the bottle. And a country in which the dream supposedly afforded to all was starting to shrink further and further away from the working classes, no matter their color or heritage.
The film, based on Hillary Jordan’s acclaimed novel, chiefly takes place on and around the farm of the McAllan family. In the early, narration-heavy scenes, Rees and Virgil Williams’ screenplay establishes the ideals about to be shattered for each of the film’s inhabitants. Laura (Carey Mulligan) is a self-proclaimed 31-year-old virgin eager to settle into domestic life, who’s less swept away than subsumed by Henry (Jason Clarke), a caring but firmly dominant type who declares that their family will relocate to the Mississippi Delta, where Henry will be able to claim a farm, and with it the American birthright of property ownership. In the early scenes, before the war hits home in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the couple lives in relative happiness, though Henry is left uneasy by the way in which Laura sometimes looks at Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), Henry’s consummate charmer of a brother.
But as is so often the case throughout history, where there’s one party coming to claim their own, there’s another one with an equal but less respected claim to that same territory. The Jackson family has worked the land for years, as many black families of the region did, the patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) raising his brood to labor alongside him. But when Henry and the McAllans come to take over the farm, Hap can’t help but ruefully observe that “this land, this law says you need a deed, not deeds.” Hap’s years of back-breaking work are of little concern to Henry, who buys a tractor much to the family’s chagrin (“he can’t even tend his own land”). When America enters into WWII, Jamie is sent away, as is Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Those who remain encounter their own adversities, from sickness to drought to the hostility of an intolerant society. Laura observes that “violence is part and parcel of country life,” and it only becomes truer as Mudbound progresses.
In the intervening years, the families become linked in a number of increasingly precarious ways, and this is where Mudbound distinguishes itself from so many other stories of domestic racism and struggle. Rees keeps the drama human, avoiding many of the more common signifiers of the period in terms of a more contained, intimate look at how dependent so many were on one another during wartime, and how quickly hierarchies were re-established once the threat of global destruction no longer dominated the day-to-day conversation. Early on, Laura comes to depend on the Jacksons, and the matriarch Florence (Mary J. Blige) in particular, when she’s forced into raising children in the dangerous isolation of a farm several miles away from the nearest town. Despite the protestations of Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), a virulent racist, Florence begins to serve as a daily presence in their lives.
Rees finds character in small strokes and the social mores of the era. Henry’s patriarchal dominance over Laura is treated by Rees for the borderline abuse it is, but the film also has an eye for the natural way in which Henry lords himself over her, long affirmed in his duty and responsibility. Though Hap and Florence have a more even-handed relationship, their goals are singular: buy their way out of the near-servitude in which they still find themselves. Henry often insinuates himself into their home without warning, as does Laura in her way, and Mudbound couches its commentaries on power dynamics in the simplest interactions between characters. Hap grabs his machete on instinct whenever an unexpected guest stops by. Pappy’s refusal to sit in the same car as Hap is a practical reality of life. When Hap falls off a roof and breaks his leg, it’s treated as apocalyptic; the family is so dependent on its all-hands-on-deck labor that such a thing could destroy their aspirations of autonomy, especially when Henry has no intentions of allowing a broken leg to interfere with his harvest.
But as it did for so many, Mudbound eventually sees the lives of its inhabitants undone after the conclusion of the war. When Jamie returns home, scarred by the horrors of his experience as a bomber pilot, Henry seems less concerned with his brother’s condition than by whether he intends to pull his weight in labor, even as Jamie falls ever further into despondence and drink. Ronsel returns home and goes from a celebrated tank sergeant to a young man who’s still not allowed to walk out the front door of the local general store, under threat of reprisal from the locals. And as the veterans begin to shift the lives of their respective families in new and hazardous directions, Mudbound evolves into a morality play about the devastation of war and the cruelty of its aftermath.
Rees, whose previous theatrical feature Pariah observed the struggles of living as a young, queer black woman in modern America, broadens her focus on race here and communicates something that’s initially familiar and eventually haunting about the cyclical nature of ignorance and oppression across the country, particularly in regions with a history of intolerance. But while the film does occasionally hit its themes on the nose, in the perpetually stained and despondent shots of the farm or the repeated emphasis on Laura attempting to cleanse her clothes and herself of toxic rot, Rees uses the familiarity of the film’s faded Americana to comment on something intrinsic about the lasting suffering of working-class Americans, and the divisions that exist even between people living at the same levels of society.
The film is painted in the hues of Laura’s early observation that “I dreamed in brown.” Rachel Morrison’s lucid, keen-eyed photography layers filth and dirt over even the more tranquil scenes, communicating pervasive exhaustion in nearly every frame. “Well-off” is a status relegated to the film’s early scenes of privilege; after a while, Mudbound offers one reminder after the next that poverty looks the same on everyone, regardless of color. It’s a sparse locale, one which Rees and Morrison envision with appropriately patient shots, punctuated by sudden and unnerving bursts of violence, personal and hostile alike. There’s a tactile exhaustion that the film communicates, and it’s wearying by design.
Though the decayed farm makes for an emphatic and somewhat obvious metaphor throughout, it’s one that Rees uses to thematically rich ends. The uniformly strong performances help in this as well, Mulligan’s withering anguish and Clarke’s firm hostility combining to form a poignant vision of declining optimism in the face of brutal reality. Blige does striking work as well, as a woman attempting to protect her own family from a vicious country, even as she increasingly realizes that there may well be an immovable ceiling for the kind of life the Jacksons can have. Through it, Blige portrays her as a woman of steely resolve, but not without moments of warmth; when she sits alone with Hap or with her children, it’s a window into the kind of contentment Florence could have known in another life.
The film’s standouts, however, are Mitchell and Hedlund as the devastated war heroes. A friendship forms between the two when they return, as kindred spirits who understand the other’s pain better than anybody. For Ronsel, the dignity he was afforded in Europe is something to be lamented, and something to be demanded back home. Their exchanges make for some of the film’s best scenes, Rees following along with their braggadocio and pain alike as they try to rebuild their lives in a world that’s never seemed less familiar. But when Jamie can’t even drive him into town without hiding him from the locals, and starts to fall under condemnation just for keeping company with Ronsel, Mudbound sugarcoats nothing about its opinion of how war heroes then and now are treated by those who benefited most from their service. Just like Hap once observed, deeds don’t matter in this version of America. It’s the piece of paper, owned by the richest among us, that always wins the day.
The film builds its encroaching dread and tragedy at a deliberate, almost operatic speed, rising to a devastating finale in which so many of its sins coalesce into a horrifying display of grievous injustice. It’s a bilious climax, one which Rees portrays with the same unyielding power of observation she brings to the film at large, and speaks to the film’s grander truths. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Mudbound is its emotional honesty, Rees rarely sidestepping the inner lives of her characters and never diminishing their own battles to live in an unlivable time, however wrongheaded they might be. Even in a film as frequently despairing as this one, Rees is generous in emotion and tone, speaking with a remarkable clarity against the cruelties of the film’s age, and of our own as mirrored by it. The fatalism of the film’s title rings true, as only one outcome truly awaits them all. But there’s more to be done yet in this life. There’s always more.
Last year saw the publication of Nancy Isenberg’s nonfiction work “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” a bestselling history detailing the intersection of race and class that details a stark truth about Southern heritage: For many rural poor white Southerners throughout American history, their belief in their own innate racial superiority was literally the only thing separating them from their rural poor black neighbors. To acknowledge reality would mean these impoverished white people would have to admit an inability to capitalize on the “American dream” that should be manifest destiny for all white Americans, to concede that the fantasy of social mobility was ever only just a fantasy, to understand that, like it or not, we are all born of and connected to the same land.
I can’t write about these ideas as eloquently as Isenberg, nor describe them as powerfully as the new film “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees based on the novel by Hillary Jordan. “Mudbound” is the story, epic and sprawling in scope, of two families working the same land in rural Mississippi in the 1940s, when Jim Crow still held sway and white supremacy was the law of the land. (The more things change, etc.) The McAllan family is white; the Jackson family is black. To each, the mud of the Delta land means something different — a lodestone dragging the McAllans down, a stepping stone to bigger and better things for the Jacksons. These families will become intertwined, their years leading inexorably toward tragedy, in this large-canvas melodrama that recalls the grand Hollywood productions of yesteryear — though one that pulses with honesty and subtlety about the insidiousness of white supremacy and racism and its constant impediment of social progress. In other words, it’s a necessary film for the moment.
As in Jordan’s novel, we see the events of “Mudbound,” drawing from a screenplay adapted by Rees and Virgil Williams, from six or so different narrators, who provide voice-over narration reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film, ruminating as much on philosophy and their existential lot in life as the film’s plot. The first of these is the college-educated Laura (Carey Mulligan), swept off her feet at age 31 by Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), though more grateful for his attention than truly attracted to him. One day, without consulting Laura, Henry sinks all his family’s money into Mississippi Delta farmland and moves them all to the dilapidated old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with his recently widowed and racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks, who radiates menace). Laura is ill at ease in this life, submissive to a husband who has dragged his family to ruin. Henry, who had some grandiose visions of success, finds his new life to be far more trying and frustrating than he anticipated.
Nearby, tenants on the land Henry has purchased are the Jacksons. Hap (Rob Morgan) is a preacher and successful farmer who takes pride in his tenant status, as his ancestors worked the same land first as slaves and then as sharecroppers; Florence (Mary J. Blige), the matriarch, tends to her big family and encourages their dreams of bigger things. The McAllans grow dependent on the Jacksons, on Hap’s ability to farm and Florence’s child-tending services, and their offers of employment start to feel more like commands.
As years go by and World War II comes to a close, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), the rakish, Errol Flynn-type younger brother of Henry, returns home after flying B-52s in Europe. Alcoholic and afflicted with PTSD, he grows close to Hap’s eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a fellow veteran who returned from Germany, where he was greeted fondly as a liberator and found romance with a white woman, to the racist South, where he is berated for trying to leave through the front door of a small-town shop. Jamie and Ronsel’s friendship upsets the established order of things in their community; the brotherhood of their shared experience in the armed forces, it turns out, transcends racial hatred, which (among others) the proudly bigoted Pappy cannot understand.
Aided by Rachel Morrison’s beautiful cinematography, Rees, an up-and-coming director best known by me for the wonderful 2011 LGBTQ story “Pariah,” takes a methodical, painterly approach to detailing the inner and outer lives of her characters. With exception of the purely hateful Pappy, these are sympathetic, complicated figures capable of good and bad deeds brought to life in a story that presents no easy solutions.
And all seven performances are marvelous: Mulligan’s quiet misery to Blige’s resolve, Morgan’s wounded pride to Clarke’s growing shame, Hedlund and Mitchell’s dangerous friendship. The entire cast is Oscar-worthy, for whatever that’s worth, though perhaps the novelistic sprawl of “Mudbound” does not satisfactorily resolve its many subplots and character arcs. Mulligan’s character, for example, feels somewhat sidelined by the second half, as the film finds its center on Mitchell and Hedlund. Nor does Blige’s Florence get the big moment to which her character arc has been building — which may be a testament to Rees’ commitment to honesty at the expense of big movie moments.
Yet I can’t shake the raw impact of “Mudbound,” which takes its time setting up its pieces and, upon reaching its powerful, bittersweet conclusion, reveals how deeply necessary that buildup was. How deftly this epic story is told, how beautiful and horrifying and powerful its vision is, how — for better and for worse — American.